Programmatic secularism is the policy of separating religious and public life, ensuring that the state is free of religious influence and leaving religion as a purely private matter for citizens. Both the USA and France are secular republics, which means that religious leaders have no place in government, religious holidays do not necessarily coincide with national holidays, religion is not taught in public schools and religious values are not necessarily reflected in legislation. By contrast, in the UK the Monarch is both the head of state and the head of the established Church. Bishops (and more recently other religious leaders) are represented in the House of Lords, giving them the opportunity to influence legislation. Religious holidays coincide with national holidays; Christmas Day will always be a Bank Holiday, as will Easter Monday. Religious broadcasting is protected by law; it only recently started to include non-Christian broadcasting and still does not feature Humanists. Under the terms of the Education Act 1988 as amended, schools are actually required to organise acts of collective worship of a broadly Christian character and to teach about Religion for 5% of curriculum time and 50% of what they cover is reserved to the “main religious tradition of the UK” i.e. Christianity. In 2018 NatCen’s British social attitudes survey demonstrates the difficulty with this approach; 52% of people now claim to have no religion and only 14% now identify with the established Church of England. If the state seeks to represent the people, there is now a clear case for programmatic secularism, as “no religion” is now the belief of the majority of UK people. However there is resistance to policy changes designed to reduce or remove the influence of religion in UK public life and this resistance comes, for the most part, from Christians. To what extent, therefore, does secularism pose a threat to Christianity in the UK? The answer very much depends on how “Christianity” is defined. If “Christianity” refers to following Jesus’ teachings – to loving God and one’s neighbour (Mark 12:31-32), then secularism poses little threat.
Secular states like the USA and France permit citizens to practice their religion privately, so there would be no bar to baptism or worship or indeed to charitable giving and good works. In Matthew 6:1 Jesus taught his disciples: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” He praised the widow for making her offering to the Temple treasury quietly and with total sincerity and devotion, contrasting her with the rich men making a show of giving only what they could easily afford. Arguably, Christians could better practice their religion when that practice is limited to being in private. In that case, there could be no confusion that engaging in worship might yield worldly rewards, whether legal, social or otherwise. Further, Jesus taught that ethical action is more important than religious ritual. Jesus made a point of healing people on the Sabbath (Mark 3), he made himself ritually impure by eating with sinners – saying “it is not the well who need a doctor, but the sick” – and he challenged the Pharisees who criticised the disciples for picking ears of corn on the Sabbath, pointing out that in their zeal to enforce the letter of the law they were ignoring its spirit, which is to protect life (Mark 2:23ff). For Jesus, the essence of Christianity lay in loving God and showing this by loving our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:31-32). In no way would being prevented from making a public show of ritual worship pose a threat to Christianity as understood like this.
Certainly, phasing out faith schools would take away some options from religious parents in terms of educating their children in a faith, yet American Christian parents seem to have coped with the challenge of organising religious instruction outside school, whether in the home or through the Church, or paying for private education. Arguably, putting the responsibility for planning and overseeing the process of educating children in a faith back onto parents (and Churches) would cause them to take a greater interest in the efficacy of the process in terms of forming faith. This done, it might do something to stem the decline in Church attendance which is charted dramatically by the Brierley Institute’s Church Statistics research, which covers the period from the early 1980s to the present day. One of the key findings in the 2018 Faith Survey reads: “UK Church membership has declined from 10.6 million in 1930 to 5.5 Million in 2010, or as a percentage of the population; from about 30% to 11.2%. By 2013, this had declined further to 5.4 million (10.3%). If current trends continue, membership will fall to 8.4% of the population by 2025” While there are obviously other factors contributing to this and while this trend does not follow through to France, Church attendance is far higher in the USA, where religion cannot be taught in schools. At least programmatic secularism could lead some Christians to practice their faith more actively, even if it leads others to abandon their nominal faith altogether. In addition, while actual research data is difficult to find, it seems likely that UK Faith schools do not have much effect on the religiosity of young people after they leave school. According to NatCen’s British Social Attitude Survey 2018, some 70% of 18-24 year olds in the UK claim to have no faith at all, a figure which has been rising steadily, despite more than 1/3 of UK schools having a faith designation. Humanists UK point out the incongruity in designating so many schools as Faith Schools, when they do not reflect even the nominal faith of those in their areas. Further, in the UK, Faith schools have struggled to recruit Headteachers and RE teachers who are practicing members of their faith tradition and Faith schools have struggled to form faith when forced to admit 50% of their students from outside their religious tradition anyway, to facilitate multiculturalism and prevent ghettoization. Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that Christians should expect the state to subsidise and/or facilitate the process of parents educating their Children in a faith. Nowhere does it suggest that the Roman state does or should even respect Christianity. In the Temple Jesus taught people to “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; give unto God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17) Which suggests that he envisaged peoples’ religious lives existing in parallel to their civic responsibilities. It follows that programmatic secularism in the UK would not pose a threat to Christianity if it is defined by the Bible and Jesus’ teachings. Rather, it would offer Christians the opportunity to experience their faith as early Christians did and force them to decide whether to commit or not.
Cases like the famous “Gay Cake” case involving Asher’s Bakery and its Belfast owners the MacArthurs may seem to point to the weakness of this argument. If laws conceived out of programmatic secularism make acting (or not acting) on religious principles illegal, then it seems that peoples’ ability to be Christian is under threat as a result of secularism. Nevertheless, Christianity was born into adversity, as a minority faith within a remarkably plural Roman Empire. Jesus taught his followers to… “take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) always recognising that being a Christian was a brave choice that would entail significant hardships or even death. The whole point of Christianity was to do what is right, not what is easy, and earn an eternal reward in heaven. Almost all of Jesus apostles were martyred, along with innumerable early Saints. Coming into conflict with the authorities as a result of one’s Christian faith seems almost to have been a mark of a true Christian within the early Church. While secularism will lead to larger numbers of Christians finding that their faith brings them into conflict with the law, this is not necessarily a threat to Christianity. Indeed, during the early centuries of Christianity the sacrifices Christians had to and were willing to make for their faith drew attention to the religion and advertised its fundamental beliefs and benefits as nothing else could. In a sense, without opposition from the state, it seems doubtful whether Christianity would have spread as quickly and as far as it did. The fact that cases like those of the MacArthurs have attracted widespread publicity and have caused even non-Christian commentators to admit respect for the sincerity of peoples’ faith, suggests that the relationship between Christians coming into conflict with the state and the religion growing is not only a thing of the past. Further, data showing that Christianity is growing fastest where it encounters most opposition from the state supports this argument. Looking at the International Bulletin for Missionary Research (IBMR) for 2015, Christianity is growing most quickly in African countries like Nigeria and South Sudan where Christians are being persecuted by Muslim militia. In the 15 years to 2015 Christianity in Africa grew by a staggering 51% to 541 million. Similarly, in China Christianity exploded in popularity at a time when any form of religious practice was banned by the secular Communist state under threat of “re-education” in camps. The same pattern can be seen in North Korea today. In the Middle East, in countries where Bibles are banned, Christianity is experiencing exponential growth. By contrast, in Europe, where the state is either actively Christian or only procedurally secular, Christianity is in long-term and significant decline, Islam is the fastest growing religion and increasing numbers of people have lost faith altogether. While Christianity can justly complain that secular laws impede peoples’ ability to act on their religious principles – when it comes to matters as diverse as mission and discipleship, denouncing homosexuality or gay marriage, wearing visible symbols of their religion or refusing to condone or facilitate what they perceive to be sinful behaviour – the suggestion that these laws or the conflict they cause threatens the continued existence of Christianity is misplaced. On the contrary, secular laws and the conflict they cause are likely to be the cause of growth in Christianity.
In conclusion, it seems that if “Christianity” refers to following Jesus’ teachings – to loving God and one’s neighbour (Mark 12:31-32), programmatic secularism poses little threat to its continued existence and might in time lead to renewed growth in the UK, where it has been in decline. Of course, if Christianity is defined in terms of Church institutions and particularly as the Church of England, then the threat posed by programmatic secularism would be real. A Church founded to facilitate a King’s divorce (and resolve a royal cash-flow issue) will obviously struggle when its privileges and protections are withdrawn. Antidisestablishmentarianism has always been a minority movement in the Church of England because of the certainty that divorcing Church and State would be traumatic and the difficulty of advertising the benefits succinctly on the side of a bus! Nevertheless, the growth in Evangelical Protestant and conservative Roman Catholic Christianity demonstrates that it is possible for Churches to thrive outside the UK establishment. If the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leaders of the Church of England were liberated from their establishment positions they would be able to speak out freely against social injustices and thus give witness to the true Christian message. While basic calls for tolerance and compassion from Justin Welby (such as in his recent speech to the TUC) always attract a barrage of press criticism for political meddling (as if that wasn’t always the job of an Archbishop!) if the Church was disestablished there would be no basis for such. While Church leaders would have a smaller platform – one commensurate with the numbers sitting in their pews – they would have the ability to represent Christian teaching and opinion on that platform, which is more than can be said at the moment. Similarly, without forcing families to confess beliefs they don’t have to secure a good education for their children, without forced acts of communal worship in Schools and without teaching about Baptism and Communion in classrooms, there might be less hostility for religion in general. Similarly, without a protected position in BBC schedules, the Church might lack prime time coverage of acts of worship… but would it really miss the bland, vanilla portrayal of what it means to be a Christian? Constant reinforcement of the (false) idea that Christianity is all about community singing, forced happiness and boring “thoughts for the day” read out by people nobody wants to listen to is far from being a help to the religion! It is fair to say that programmatic secularism in the UK would lead to further sharp decline within the Church of England – and particularly in the numbers of people who claim to be “CofE” but rarely attend Church – but whether this “threat” would harm the longer-term prospects of even this Church is uncertain.
 Parliamentary Briefing on Faith Schools, 2018.